Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where are the Voices from the Grass Roots?

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy blog)

In reading much that is printed in the mainstream media like today's editorial in the New York Times - "Accountability in Public Education," one constantly hears accounts and perspectives from the voices of those who are in power. Where are the voices from the grass roots about their concerns, frustrations, hopes, and challenges to what passes as educational reform in this country. I recently came across a website and a listserv that provides readers with this alternative perspective. For readers interested in educating themselves on other perspectives, check out the following website and join the listserv of the Education for Liberation Network.


To join the listserv: go to

Description and Purpose: The Education for Liberation Network is a national coalition of teachers, community activists, youth, researchers and parents who believe a good education should teach people - particularly low-income youth and youth of color - to understand and challenge the injustices their communities face.

Teachers may also be interested in their recent publication of a new kind of plan book that is called: Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers 2009-2010. You can find it at: I am told that the first printing is already sold out, but more are being printed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New Alberta law may chill classroom speech

In June, the Alberta legislature passed a bill that will require teachers to notify parents whenever sexual or religious topics will be addressed. Under the terms of the bill, the parents, once notified, could elect to pull their children out of any classes that concerned these topics.

Not surprisingly, this legislation has provoked opposition from a number of corners, perhaps most significantly from teachers, who feel that it will have a chilling effect on their speech. For some teachers, it may be easier to avoid a topic than to take the trouble of sending formal notification home. Yet even if the topic is a required element of the curriculum (e.g. sex education), a new bureaucratic hurdle has been created.

Teachers have also noted that this law may require notification whenever evolution is discussed in science classrooms. Lindsay Blackett, Alberta's Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, has indicated that this is not the case--he claimed that it is only when religion is explicitly addressed that notification would be required. However, the Premier of Alberta, Frank Stelmach, cast doubt on this, suggesting that parents would be notified and given the opportunity to remove their children from classes which dealt with the topic of evolution.

Gay rights activists are also unhappy with this legislation. One gay parent asked, "What happens at Father's Day art projects when my son makes two? How does the teacher explain that without talking about my family?" Yet even if parental notification is not actually required in this case, it seems likely that the law will lead teachers to avoid topics like this. What teacher will want to talk about a subject that has, in essence, been designated officially as dangerous?

The bill occasioned a great deal of heated rhetoric in the Alberta legislature, which is currently controlled by the Progressive Conservative (PC) party. Government members claimed that they were respecting the rights of parents. Rob Anderson, the PC member for Airdrie-Chestermere, offered the following comment on the bill:
...there are thousands and thousands of parents, the silent majority, severely
normal Albertans that are extremely happy with this legislation, that
believe it’s right to affirm the right of parents as being the primary
educators of their children in these subjects. I think that it’s a credit
to this government that it has stood up for what is right on this
Opposition Liberal and NDP members, however, maintained that the government had caved to religious interests. Harry Chase, the Liberal member for Calgary-Varsity, remarked:
By enshrining prejudice in the name of religious tolerance, this
government has taken Alberta back to the controversy of the Scopes
monkey trial of 1925 in Tennessee. To divert Albertans’ attention
from their prejudicial proposal, they have played and replayed the
racial discrimination defence card, that due to their caucus’s ethnic
diversity they are shocked that anyone would dare to accuse them of
promoting intolerance. However, that is exactly what Bill 44, which
does not apply to private schools, will do to previously inclusive,
open-minded, secular-based public schools by enshrining in law the
right to discriminate on the basis of human sexuality, religion, or
sexual orientation.
Opposition members also noted that Alberta already provides generous public funding for private schools. Any citizen who wishes to send their child to private school can receive a voucher for 70% of the public school subsidy. Not surprisingly, the parental notification bill does not apply to Alberta private schools, many of which are faith-based.

Since the Conservatives have a 72-11 majority in the Alberta legislature, the opposition had no chance of stopping the passage of the bill. However, the law has yet to be implemented in schools, and it remains to be seen what effect it will have. How rigorously will teachers comply with the law? Will many parents elect to pull their children from classes?

At any rate, the question remains as to how parents' rights to control their children's learning should be balanced against teachers' rights and state interests. In Alberta, at least, it would seem as though the balance has shifted decisively towards parents.